Scripture Text: Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
So here we have the story of a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants. He grows up, becomes a teacher, probably a rabbi, a healer, and sort of a community organizer. He asks a handful of people to become his followers, to help him in his mission. They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing. And then one day, Jesus takes them mountain climbing, away from the interruptions of the world, away from what was brewing below. Don’t you think they were sort of wondering where they were going? Oh, if they only knew what would come! And there on the mountain, they see Jesus change, his clothes taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding white, whiter than anything they had ever seen before. And on the mountain appear Moses and Elijah, standing there with Jesus—the law, the prophets, all of those things that came before, no longer separate, (and certainly not replacements one for the other) but suddenly swept into everything that Christ is, swept into the whole presence of God right there on that mountain.
So Peter offers to build three dwellings to house them. I used to think that he had somehow missed the point, that he was in some way trying to manipulate or control or make sense of this wild and uncontrollable mystery that is God. I probably thought that because that’s what I may tend to do. But, again, Peter was speaking out of his Jewish understanding. He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle—for the holy. For him, it was a way not of controlling the sacred but rather of honoring the awe and wonder that he sensed. And then the voice…”This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” OK…what would you have done? First the mountain, then the cloud, then these spirits from the past, and now this voice…”We are going to die. We are surely going to die,” they must have thought. And then Jesus touches them and in that calm, collected manner, he says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight. In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle was the place where God was. Here, this changes. Jesus stays with them alone. Jesus IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world. And all that was and all that is has become part of that, swept into this Holy Presence of God.
And so the disciples start down the mountain. Jesus remains with them but he tells them not to say anything. The truth was that Jesus knew that this account would only make sense in light of what was to come. The disciples would know when to tell the story. They saw more than Jesus on the mountain. They also saw who and what he was. And long after Jesus is gone from this earth, they will continue to tell this strange story of what they saw. For now, he would just walk with them. God’s presence remains.
The Greek term for “transfiguration” is “metamorphosis”, deriving from the root meaning “transformation”. It is, literally, to change into something else. There is no going back. The truth is that the disciples probably got a little bit more of God’s presence than they wanted. Because there was more than just Jesus changed on that mountain. The disciples would never be the same again. We will never be the same again. The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live. You know, I think they were right. No one can see God and remain unchanged. We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud. The truth is, when we are really honest with ourselves, we probably are a little like the disciples. We’d rather not really have “all” of God. We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives. We’d rather be a little more in control of any metamorphosis that happens in our lives. We’d rather be able to pick and choose the way that our lives change. We’d rather God’s Presence come blowing in at just the right moment as a cool, gentle, springtime breeze. In fact, we’re downright uncomfortable with this devouring fire, bright lights, almost tornado-like God that really is God.
Remember the words of the Isaac Watts hymn: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” God’s power is God’s power. It does not just come to us; we enter it—taking with it all that we are. It is not a warm and fuzzy relationship; it is wild and risky, full of awe and wander. It is mystery. It is more than anything that we can possibly imagine. It is a complete and total metamorphosis. There is no going back.
This account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to us that it should be the climax of the Jesus story—the quintessential mountain-top experience. After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him. But there’s a reason that the lectionary places this reading immediately before we begin the journey to Jerusalem. In some ways, it is perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey. Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now. And then the lights dim. Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking.
Have you ever been mountain climbing? The way up is hard. You have to go slowly, methodically even. You have to be very careful and very intentional. You have to be in control. But coming down is oh, so much harder. Sometimes you can’t control it; sometimes the road is slick and seems to move faster than your feet. And sometimes, through no fault or talent of your own, you get to the bottom a little bit sooner than you had planned. Yes, it’s really harder to come down. Jesus walked with the disciple in the silence. The air became thicker and heavier as they approached the bottom. As they descended the mountain, they knew they were walking toward Jerusalem.
The Transfiguration is only understood in light of what comes next. Yes, the way down is a whole lot harder. We have to go back down, to the real world, to Jerusalem. We have to walk through what will come. Jesus has started the journey to the cross. We must do the same.